Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
A map of the musical history of Bloomingdale was recently created by Vita Wallace of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group’s Planning Committee. The map is posted here, along with commentary from Vita and photos of a recent BNHG Program that presented the rich heritage of our musical neighborhood
THE MAP (scroll down for Spanish version)
At one point, I was planning to have more explanatory text on the back of my map of musical history in the neighborhood. Later, I redesigned it to have no back, but instead two “fronts,” one in English and one in Spanish. This made it impossible for me to highlight as many stories as I had originally intended to on the map, and I thought some of you might be interested in reading the draft of the original explanatory text below. It might help you to find your way into the final version of the map, and it also contains a lot of additional details that I enjoyed collecting.
This musical map uses scraps of melody to suggest musical events, musical venues, the homes and habits of musicians, neighbors’ musical memories, and a few elements of the neighborhood soundscape. It would have been impossible to be complete, so I strove instead to give a sense of the variety of musical styles and musical experiences that have occupied, moved, and delighted residents over the last 200 years. How lucky we are to have been a neighborhood of immigrants from many places for so many years! What a marvelous musical legacy we have to share, celebrate, and be inspired by! The cross-streets are represented by musicals staves, the avenues by bar-lines. How to use this map, I leave to your imagination.
Since the establishment of St Michael’s Episcopal Church (99th and Amsterdam) in 1807, churches in our neighborhood have rung the hours and given scope to fine organists (often composers) who organized dozens of choirs (English, German, French, Chinese, Eritrean…). The Cathedral of St John the Divine (110th and Amsterdam) has the oldest organ in the area (built 1906) and has employed some of the most celebrated American organ-improvisers of the past century, making it difficult to guess which one a neighbor remembers accompanying silent films over the summer many years ago. Ascension Catholic Church (107th between Broadway and Amsterdam) still has the case of its 1898 organ, but the works have been rebuilt. Area churches have also presented concerts and served as nurseries for both amateur and professional groups. The Falcons, the Paul Winter Consort, Early Music New York, Pomerium, Florilegium Chamber Choir, Shirei Chesid, Amuse, Westside Opera Society, the New York Piano Academy, Soh Daiko — these and many more were nurtured by our churches.
Unexpected, but a stroke of genius, was Bernardo Palombo’s idea to combine a Spanish language school with concerts featuring musicians from all over the Americas at El Taller Latino Americano, which has been at home at St Michael’s Church as well upstairs in the Automat building at 104th and Broadway during its 36-year history. Long before the Bloomingdale School of Music (founded in 1964 at West End Presbyterian Church, 105thand Amsterdam), the Master Insititute of United Arts (founded in 1929 at the Master Building, 103rd and Riverside) offered lessons in strings, piano, organ, voice, theory, composition, conducting, even harp; the harp teacher was none other than Carlos Salzedo! The Master Orchestra and Chorus presented substantial and interesting programs. The Equity Library Theatre also produced musicals in the Master Theater from 1943-87. By the way, while churches often double as theaters, The Master Theater turned into a church, as did the Fox Theater (109th and Manhattan Avenue), now Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal.
Audiences enjoyed live orchestras and massive organs at the large, swanky Riverside and Riviera Theatres, 96th and 97th and Broadway (1912-1913). These were on the “subway circuit” for shows that had already played on Broadway (“legit,” vaudeville, and musical comedies). Later they featured burlesque revues and movies. The Riviera’s organ was built in 1917 and Riverside’s in 1928. Even the smaller movie theaters such as the Rose Theater (102nd and Columbus) and the Park West (98th and Columbus) had organs (both built in 1926). The Park West’s stops included doorbell, horses’ hooves, train whistle, and fire gong (reiterated). Speaking of organs, there were several in grand houses in the neighborhood, including one in the main hall of “Satin Soap” heir David S. Brown (102nd and Riverside) from 1895-1910. And, speaking of the Riverside and the Riviera: what was designed in 1927 as a “comfort station” in the middle of Broadway in front of the two theaters, has become a charming gallery and venue for music run by West Side Arts Coalition.
Life in the Old Community on 99th and 100th Streets between Amsterdam and Central Park West was full of music, with St Jude’s Chapel at its heart. Rev. Floarda Howard was a musician himself and his wife Sadie encouraged children’s choirs during Lent, musical teas, hymn-singing in the garden during the summer (following showings of stereo-opticon slides), musical clubs all year round, even a church orchestra! The atmosphere was heightened by regular dances at the 98-99th St Association/Children’s Aid Society and frequent visits from stars including Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday, whose mother owned a restaurant on 99th Street.
Buskers, outdoor concerts, and music festivals have long enlivened sidewalks, subway stations, parks, community gardens, farmers’ markets, & city streets. Riverside Clay Tennis Association’s Sunset Concerts feature music from all over the world. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players made their debut in Straus Park in the early 1970s. Jazz has become a tradition on the Great Hill in Central Park since the 1990 celebration of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s birthday. Thomas Delaney made an impression playing the blues outside his apartment building in 2005 after a fire kept him and his neighbors from home for months. What a Neighborhood! was founded in 2003 by brother and sister Ishmael and Vita Wallace to celebrate the creative spirit in the area primarily through the music of living local composers. One of their projects, with composer Elizabeth Adams, has been to encourage neighbors to write songs about their blocks (“songlines”) and to sing them as they walk.
Around 1900, “Little Coney Island”(110th and Broadway) had several “concert halls,” one of which was described by the proprietor as “a Summer garden, with a little stage for singing” and by neighbors as a “dancehall… bringing a large number of the worst element of the city to the locality.” Since then, all sorts of music have been presented in the area’s restaurants, clubs, & bars. Peter’s Italian Table d’Hote Restaurant at 163 West 97th Street had a nice dance-floor c. 1910, and so did the “speakeasy” Chateau Shanley, which succeeded it and must have employed excellent musicians since the owner, Will Oakley, was a well-known singer. Perhaps the most famous hotspots were Mikell’s (97th and Columbus), Augie’s, now Smoke (105th and Broadway) and Birdland, which moonlighted on the same block from 1986-96.
Many thanks to the NYC Organ Project, Gary Dennis (of Cinema Treasures and NY Tours by Gary), Michael Susi (author of Postcards of the Upper West Side), the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group’s collection at the New York Public Library’s Bloomingdale branch, and the members of the group’s planning committee for information and inspiration.